Charlayne Woodard and Marc Wolf are two actors who have perfected their abilities to tell stories. Their respective solo shows In Real Life and Another American: Asking and Telling (performing in repertory at the Mark Taper Forum) are clear indications of their polished skills. This is the third play written by Woodard, a classically trained performer who studied at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, as an actor/playwright. "The play is about this young woman's journey and what I think we all go through in our 20s," said Woodard in a recent interview. Her first play, Pretty Fire, won NAACP and L.A. Drama Critics Circle awards for best play and playwright. The play Neat followed, for which she received the Irving and Blanche Laurie Theatre Vision Award and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations. The stage veteran has numerous Broadway, Off-Broadway, and regional credits, including the original cast of Ain't Misbehavin', In The Blood, Twelfth Night, and The Good Person of Setzuan. Woodard's film credits include Unbreakable, Million Dollar Hotel, The Crucible, Eye for an Eye, and Around the Fire. She also appeared in the Showtime movie Run for the Dream: The Gail Devers Story.
It took New York-native Wolf approximately three years to conceptualize and bring to life his award-winning solo piece, Another American: Asking and Telling. His hard work and dedication is paying off as he has already received the Obie Award and earned Drama Desk and Outer Critic Circle award noms. He created the piece as "a response to the 1993 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy that forbade punitive action against gay military personnel who keep their sexual orientation private." Wolf presents the audience with the words of 18 present and former military men and women taped by the actor during more than 150 interviews, starting in 1996. Wolf's stage credits include Party, Bent, Wild Honey, Lonely Planet with the Provincetown Repertory Theatre, and Edward Albee's Finding the Sun. The Williams College graduate also appeared on Guiding Light as Brent Lawrence/Marian Crane.
Back Stage West recently met the two thesps at the Taper to discuss solo productions, being commissioned, and their devotion to storytelling.
Charlayne Woodard: This is my third solo show, and the process is very different because it was commissioned. The other two, I just did it and asked, "Who wants to put on my play?"
Marc Wolf: This is good to know, because my next one is commissioned.
Charlayne: Being commissioned changed my process totally because the theatres have to get involved in the creative process. In Real Life is commissioned by Seattle Rep and the Mark Taper. Usually when I do my plays I think about what phase of my life I want to explore, and I just start telling stories—whatever flies into my head. I'm sitting on a rooftop in Santa Monica with a girlfriend, and she says, "Charlayne, remember when we were in college and blah blah blah…" and I say, "Oh, yes," and here comes the story. Then I go back and I think about it, and maybe the next week at a dinner party I come up with another story from that time. I take the entire year to tell stories. By the time a year goes by it's all realized, just about. Then it's all about getting it on its feet. Then it really starts having a life of its own.
This time was different, because, if you have a commission, then three months after it's granted they say, "We'd like to see a little bit of the first act." I forced myself to write more like a conventional writer. Usually the stories just come out of me, and my head never gets involved. With this one, I had to adjust so that everyone could be involved in the process. It's very difficult, and it took me longer to write because of it. Because if I'm left alone I have no pressure and I feel free and inspired and you know you've got a year… and I'm a talker anyway.
Marc: The process for me took three years. The whole time I felt like I was racing the clock. I wanted to get it done before Clinton left office because I thought it would have an immediacy. As it turns out, I was doing the show at the McCarter Theatre when Bush took office, and I think it's actually more immediate now. I felt it kicking stronger within me and with the audience.
The reason I did it was because we were not allowed to know the stories of gay people in the military. For whatever reason, the federal government said these people were not allowed to tell their stories and we're not allowed to hear them. Period. I feel if you silence people like that you create an atmosphere where they can get abused, even hurt. Also, you're depriving them of telling their history. I had seen Anna Deveare Smith and how she developed her shows. I thought that it was such a brilliant way to explore a complicated issue.
Back Stage West: Why solo acts? Why not work with a cast?
Marc: For me it was like guerrilla warfare. I went to bases and small towns. I could not go with a group because I would draw attention to myself. I didn't want the military to know I was doing this because I didn't want them to follow me or know whom I was talking to. I needed to do it as efficiently and quietly as possible.
I also felt that if the audience just sees this white man standing onstage they don't know whom I am playing. I could be playing a World War II veteran. I could be playing an active-duty person who's 20 years old. They have to listen to what the person says. They can't make a judgment, like whether I am a man or woman or gay or straight. They don't know. They have to listen to who the person is and then come to conclusions away from the text.
Charlayne: When I did my first play, what compelled me was my grandmother's death. I spent a lot of time thinking about my grandmother and telling stories about my grandmother. I come from storytellers. It never occurred to me that I would stand up onstage by myself and do something like that. I was thinking I would just come together with some actors and just work on something. However, everyone I asked wouldn't work with me.
Marc: On this project?
Charlayne: On any project. I just wanted to do a scene. That's when it occurred to me that I was just going have to tell the story myself.
Marc: Because of all the scheduling involved it's just so much easier. People cast a show, then they'll have a workshop, then someone always ends up dropping out.
Charlayne: I go to plays here where opening night is postponed because someone got a job. I've made a living in theatre. I take it incredibly seriously. I couldn't abide anyone who doesn't just fall into the play like I do. It just made absolute sense that I would have to stand up and do it on my own. I didn't plan on doing a solo. I didn't plan on doing a play. I thought it was something I would just work on. I am a reluctant solo artist.
Marc: I am, too.
Charlayne: It's only out of the need to tell a story that I do it.
Marc: There is also something about the aloneness of a solo piece—a lot of gay people have support in the military from friends they meet, but you have to meet those friends very carefully, and if you go to a new base you may be alone. So there are tons of people who are very alone. I thought that the solo-ness of the show just resonates for that.
Charlayne: When I first came out here, one thing that drove me to write my first play was that I needed more as an actor than I was getting in my other work. I don't pooh-pooh that other work because it allows me to continue to do theatre. But I wanted to keep growing as an artist and as a stage actor. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to write—because I didn't want to complain anymore.
Marc: A big reason why I go back to theatre or why I even started to do theatre in the first place is that I am fascinated by people. I just love watching people. The more money I was making and the more success I was starting to get, the fewer opportunities I was getting to explore really interesting people.
BSW: How do you condense all your material into a short show?
Charlayne: It's what your body can take. If you decide that you're going to throw in this and throw in that, during run-throughs you realize it's three hours long.
Marc: Writers have to be ruthless and kill off their favorite things. I just knew it had to be entertaining and I had to love doing it and the audience had to love listening to it. So it had to be short. I slashed a lot of great material.
Charlayne: I also go to friends' homes and ask them, "Can I have you for two hours?" I read to them. If they're sleeping in the middle of it, I know that certain part will have to go.
I agree with you. The only things that you put onstage are what you love.
Marc: I learned early on while workshopping: If I was going to do this for a long time, I had to love every moment of it. BSW